The most common expectation people have on going into The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that they will see an exquisite piece of animation art. Few going in will expect to be moved as thoroughly as they will be, and fewer still will expect to emerge wondering about the substance of their own lives. By the end of Kaguya I felt humbled, not just because I had watched a labor of love that showed every minute of its multi-year gestation time, but because director Isao Takahata and the rest of the crew at Studio Ghibli have chosen to do far more than merely put prettiness on the screen. Through the context of a folk tale, one as well-known in Japan (and most likely as shopworn) as "Little Red Riding Hood" is in the West, they are asking us to consider the scope and meaning of a human life — not just that of its heroine, but our own lives next to hers.
It's become something of a truism to talk about the movie as Takahata's masterwork — although given that he has Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, Only Yesterday and a number of other outstanding productions to his name, it's not as if his batting average for masterworks was low before he delivered Kaguya. It's also not likely to be Takahata's last movie, either, as while writing this I received word Takahata is already beginning work on his next film. (I figured it was too early to say either he or Studio Ghibli have hung up their coats.) But it's safe to say that the number of masterworks in his catalog has been increased by one.
How do you solve a problem like Kaguya?
Sometime in Japan's past (apparently the Heian era), a bamboo cutter and his wife live humbly by the edge of the forest. One day, the old man splits open a bamboo stalk and finds a girl, barely the size of his cupped hands. Not a doll, as his wife first thinks; a real, living girl, who transforms instantly in their hands into a squalling infant. Shortly after that, to her immense surprise, the wife — now nominally the baby's mother — finds herself lactating.
"It's a gift from heaven!" the woodcutter exclaims. Gift and miracle, both. Having no child of their own, they raise her with love and care, and can't help but be charmed by her boundless energy and curiosity. She also grows — and not over the course of years, but within a matter of days, in leaps and bounds like ... well, a bamboo shoot, as the local ruffians nickname her. She becomes a playmate to them, with the eldest of the bunch, the pre-teen Sutemaru, assuming a role of older brother to her — even as she grows old enough to become more than just that.
One day her father splits open another bamboo shoot. Gold spills out. From a third shoot come gorgeous clothes, like so much water from a fountainhead. It's a sign that heaven wants him to take her to the capitol and get her married off — something that would guarantee him and his wife an elevated position in society. The girl (whom he has referred to all this time as his "princess") doesn't even have a chance to say goodbye to her friends before being whisked off to Kyoto in an ox-drawn cart. There, she's dressed in the finest of silks, which she enjoys, and taught manners and etiquette by a stern lady taskmaster, which she does not. Despite her free-wheeling spirit, she's also a fast study in everything from playing the koto to the proper way to sit ... but there come moments when it seems less that she is learning these things, and more that she is remembering them.
What is impossible to deny is that under it all, she does not want to conform. She has too many cartwheels in her soul, too many smiles in her eyes. She will knuckle under it if she must, but where is the "must" here? In her father's head, which swells now with visions of social climbing. When the girl is given a name more befitting of her newfound station, Kaguya, she recoils instinctively from the days-long ceremony of drunken revelry they stage for — one where she's not even participating, but spends the whole time behind a reed curtain. She dreams of escape, but even in her dreams there's no solace; she's now a creature of the palace, no matter what fire continues to blaze inside her.
It's not that her father means to snuff out that flame. It's that he doesn't understand that as they were, on their own, they had things no amount of prestige or power (or gold) could bring them. Her mother understands this and helps Kaguya stage her own tacit rebellion — staking out a little garden for them, preferring the kitchen and the loom to the rest of the mansion they now inhabit. But she can't protect her daughter from her husband's demands, and when a whole horde of suitors come demanding her hand in marriage, all she can do is sit on the sidelines and watch. By that point, however, Kaguya has developed more than a little spine of her own, and she puts the pretentiousness and self-importance of those men back in their proper place.
What she does not expect — and neither does anyone else — is for that self-assertion to awaken something else within her. All this time, the greater question of where she came from, why she was bestowed unto these people, has remained dormant. The incident with the suitors awakens an understanding within her: she was, and is, a gift — one that can be taken away as easily as it was bestowed. And suddenly the world she's in — with all of its disappointment, failure, constraints, and evil — seems far better than the one she might go back to.
More than just a myth
Fairy tales and folklore have at their heart a darkness that is easy to ignore — not the hyper-masculine blood-and-thunder darkness of stuff like Game of Thrones, but "the dark of night, of dreams, of sorrow and terror and peace", as Gerard Jones put it in his essay on the animated adaptation of Watership Down. Kaguya has some of that darkness at its heart, even when its lovely and delicate production design hints otherwise. Most every frame looks as though it had been brush-painted directly onto the screen. But there are also times when Takahata and his team deliberately upend the look they've established, as when Kaguya flees the palace and the formerly languid and precise design style transforms into a wild, slashing forest of inkstrokes. It's the most painstaking level of care I've seen invested in the making of an animated film since REDLINE, albeit for the sake of entirely different artistic ambitions.
I put art first and story second only if we are talking about a genuinely groundbreaking project, and I would have been tempted to do that with Kaguya if the story itself hasn't also been so absorbing. It may be nominally a fairy tale, but it's pitched in terms that are also specific and direct: the palpable love Kaguya's parents have for her; the way she and Sutemaru steal melons and wolf them down together; the relationship she forms in Kyoto with her female page, who begins as a servant and by degrees turns into a co-conspirator.
Because Kaguya and all those around her are specific personalities — especially her father, so flawed but also so understandable — we respond to what happens to them on a deeper level than we would if they were just the abstractions most fairy-tale characters are. Even better is how the fairy-tale aspects of the story work twice — once as fantasy, and the second time as metaphor, or commentary on the material. When Kaguya grows up with jarring speed, it's like a nod to the way parents watch their own children's explosive growth. One moment your kids are in diapers; you turn around, and they're drinking beers and holding their diploma. Where'd the time go?
The parts of the movie that work less well are not conceptually flawed; they all have a purpose. What doesn't work is the way they're paced or presented, and I was dismayed that I found myself complaining about the pacing at all because of how much work the movie does to get us to approach it on its own terms. The whole subplot with Kaguya's suitors, for instance: the concept is an integral part of her character's development (for at least one reason I shouldn't ruin here), and it can't be said that Takahata and his animators have great fun depicting each of these buffoons in the full flower of their buffoonery. But it still feels like five scenes doing the work of one. And the way Kaguya has her big revelation feels similarly off: it ends up feeling out of left field, like something tacked on to force the story to detour into its (admittedly heartbreaking) third act.
Through a new audience's eyes
I doubt any of these flaws, alone or together, explains why Kaguya did so poorly at the Japanese box office, earning back maybe half of its production cost. The nominal reason for that was the growing perception in Japan that Ghibli & Co. are a dated relic. But I also wondered if being over-familiar with the source material didn't help either. Japan transmutes its history and mythology through pop-culture lenses all the more wildly and stylishly with each passing year, and while sometimes the results are silly (Bakumatsu Rock), sometimes they're also maniacally inspired (Sengoku Basara). Kaguya didn't elect to do anything that outré, and so I wonder if its intended audience rejected it because it eschewed gimmicks, and preferred instead to just tell a good, solid, and deeply sad story.
Come to think of it, the fact that Western audiences are largely unfamiliar with the underlying fairy tale might well work in their favor. They may not understand as many of the references, but they also have a better chance of approaching Kaguya without cultural blinders on — without seeing what centuries of tradition have put there instead of what Takahata and his cronies have created. Takahata's Pom Poko brought analogous thoughts to mind: would Western audiences who don't know anything about the mythology of the tanuki feel like they were missing out? Jason Sacks of our sister site Comics Bulletin seemed to think so, but even as most of the in-jokes and references whizzed over his head, he still found the core story accessible and moving. (The smarter the viewer, I sometimes think, the harder such things seem to hit, for those viewers tend to blame themselves, not the movie, for not being able to figure things out.)
I think the greatest measure of the movie's success is how what stayed with me most in the end was not Kaguya's status as a work of animation art, although that was never far from my mind. What I am left with most of all is the story of a short, happy life, lived as well as possible, and in defiance of both fate and convention. Kaguya was given a home, found love with her parents, enjoyed friendship, sought life and love on her terms, and wrung out of it the most happiness she could in the face of the inevitable. How many of us can say the same?